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Published April 22, 2012 | Humanities

Dissemination is the Key

As a new participant in the fifth year of the J@nus Project, a hybrid joint course between Vanier College and Cégep de Sept-Îles, I am aware that technology is a central theme but history is a factor. The project's founders, Sophie Jacmin and Sharon Coyle, are a wealth of wisdom about how virtual team teaching works. Furthermore, Sharon, Sophie, my partner at Cégep de Sept Îles, André Alizzi and I have worked well as a pedagogical team. We have been consulting at least since September for a course that began in January. I've realized that kind of backend work is what's necessary to make virtual team teaching happen in a coherent fashion.

Teaching in a Virtual Environment

When incorporating technological tools into the classroom, teachers have to be courageous and flexible to improvise because what you've planned does not always work. We want to document what is happening so that other teachers can benefit from our experience. Sophie Jacmin has been videotaping almost every class to document how a session such as ours unfolds. Dissemination is the key to making our virtual team-teaching project accessible to others.

Video clip - courtesy Sophie Jacmin

When I started with Project J@nus in Fall 2010, the interactions between the classes were more occasional. We had maybe six sessions out of the semester using VIA and some iChat. Now, in Winter 2011, we are getting together every class and actually using a broad range of Web 2.0 tools in order to connect between colleges. When they began Project J@nus, Sophie and Sharon experimented with the number of meetings to see what works best. One thing that has changed this term is that we're using Moodle to achieve a lot of the merging between our two classrooms.

We have everybody on the same Moodle account, and we're leveraging every possible tool that DECclic has to offer on Moodle right now. There's a way of synchronizing Google Apps and Prezi into Moodle, but Decclic isn't there yet. I'm sure they will be someday. André Allizi has helped us discover how to use Prezi for team and peer-based learning; we tried Google Docs and some Google apps. Sophie is impressed with the way we're using Moodle wikis, which they never used.

Technology and Its Limits

We don't have students doing assignments together in terms of a term project or a presentation across schools, but we have had them create wikis and prezis together in order to reflect on the course content, or to create a collaborative knowledge research project that's then presented to the class. Afterwards, it's uploaded to Moodle where other people can evaluate it.

One of the things I would correct is the hardware that we use. Right now we're in a computer laboratory with long desks in rows with individual workstations. That is not a conducive atmosphere for a group talk with one camera. We had a guest speaker from New Delhi, India speak to both of our classes through a Skype link. The Sept-Îles group was able to be closer to the camera. They could see him and he could see them. At Vanier, we had this long room with students forty feet away from the camera who knew that they were invisible, so there was a loss of engagement.

It's the same when Andre and I try to deliver our brief lecture content. Sometimes Andre will do a short ten minute content piece, or I'll do a short ten minute lecture on some key concepts. I feel that the physical arrangement at Sept-Îles allows me to connect more with those students than the physical arrangement at Vanier allows André to connect with my students, and I would really like to change that. Sept-Îles students have laptops and can close the lids to make the entire room visible. At Vanier, with workstations plopped on desks with 22 inch monitors, students can just slouch and disappear.

The Payoff

In one aspect, however, the classroom layout has worked to my advantage. The Sept-Îles group is smaller, and my group is capped at 32. This pushes the limit of how big these kinds of classes can be to support substantive activities where teachers can work effectively. When I'm teaming students up, generally there is one Sept-Îles student with two Vanier students. To some degree, I've been able to use the geography of the Vanier classroom to ensure that our students communicate using the computer even though they're in the same classroom. Most communication is by texting to avoid using microphones which generate crosstalk and feedback. Moodle has a chat function, and I can log into team chats. With everyone typing away on their keyboards during these class sessions, the classroom sounds like a cockroach convention!

What I found really amazing this term is to see how André and I have been able to convey high-level content while using tools which students were not used to. The notion of "digital natives" is misplaced by those who gleefully "use" it to forward the technology-in-schools agenda. These students are categorically not digital natives. 15 minutes in a classroom attempting to complete the most basic knowledge-based task with students will demonstrate this. They are only "digital natives" when doing user-based tasks; i.e. simply navigating their way, like mice, through user-friendly interfaces without thinking to manipulate the processes to their own ends.

Has information technology in your classroom benefited from the experience of your colleagues? Has Profweb been a part of the process? Who have you collaborated with in order to bring new technologies into your classroom?

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